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Will we bully self-driving cars?

Most stories in the press about driverless cars seem to focus on technology and safety. This story takes a more human view – how will drivers of conventional cars act towards self-driving cars? A recent study by London School of Economics and Goodyear suggests some drivers could be tempted to bully them!

One of the 12,000 participants in this pan-European study said of driverless cars, “They’re never going to do anything horrible to us. They’re nice cars.” It’s a revealing statement: it suggests we might start treating driverless cars like people.

The research views the road as a “social space” where people drive according to their level of “driving sociability”. “Cooperative” drivers enjoy interaction with others on the road but “combative” drivers are more likely to flout the rules of the social space.

How sociable can self-driving cars be?

Researchers asked participants whether or not they agreed with these statements:

  • Machines don’t have emotions so they might be better drivers than humans (37% agreed)
  • Machines don’t have the common sense needed to interact with human drivers (60% agreed).

More people were convinced self-driving cars don’t have common sense than were certain they don’t have emotions so they could be better drivers. Attitudes or openness to driverless cars varied but most people were doubtful:

  • 26% said they are comfortable (totally, very, or quite) with using one
  • 29% said they are comfortable driving beside one
  • 44% feel uncomfortable about using one
  • 41% feel uncomfortable about driving beside one.

Breaking the rules

Interestingly, combative drivers were more comfortable with self-driving technology and more likely to have the confidence to use it. Perhaps they seemed easier to deal with than humans. Combative drivers even said they would take advantage of driverless cars by breaking the rules. They might bully them and force them to fit in to be safe.

Volvo recently announced a UK pilot scheme in 2018 to lease 100 self-driving 4WD vehicles for use on busy main roads in London. It will not mark the cars, so drivers do not feel tempted to treat them differently from other cars.

Many people are wary of giving up control of a vehicle and do not want to be forced to rely on technology for their safety (although pilots do this all the time). Moreover, it may take ime to allay well-founded fears that driverless cars will not integrate well into the “social space” of the road.

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